“Pivo, vodka, dzhin, sprait, fistashki, arakhis, limonad, konyak … Beer, vodka, gin, Sprite, pistachios, peanuts, lemonade, cognac … The striking, dark young man, whom Russians would instantly, pejoratively label “a Southerner,” clean-cut in creased black pants and neatly pressed white shirt under a burgundy vest, hawks the contents of his clinking metal basket as he sways forward through the rattling corridor of the train carriage. I gratefully purchase a lukewarm, fully sugared Sprite (should we call it “hevvy”?) at three times the usual price. Decades since I’ve had such syrupy junk.
After the conductor has shrugged his complacent Slavic shrug in response to my confident question, and informs me in a peculiarly satisfied manner that there is nothing today—no restaurant, no buffet, no stops—NICHEGO—I have begun to veer toward mild panic. Time to take something for my persistent, worsening migraine. In the raging upset and confusion, I’ve come away without my usual “just-in-case” string bag, replete with vital liquids—mineral water, juice, and a hair of the dog that is snarling at me— in case of shock or extreme boredom. This stash Lydia refers to as my ridiculous economy and unnecessary extra weight. However, “NOTHING” has proved merely an elementary opening move in Bate the Passenger, the ever-entertaining game played by nearly all Russian transportation personnel.
I’m rumbling toward my autumn wedding on the 15.55 Aurora, St. Petersburg-
Moscow. Solitary. Hungry. Thirsty. Distressed. In my well-made scenario, my daughter Lydia would now be rolling her mischievous eyes and casting me amused, incredulous glances from the seat opposite, where now my bag and bare feet rest without overt objection from their neighbor, an older than I woman absorbed in an Akunin mystery. I’m prepared to dig in my naked heels at the slightest aggression, given the fact that I did pay for it, seat No. 21, and have the receipt to prove it at the ready. Unaware of this simmering history, my other four cramped compartment mates have begun to cast surreptitious, disapproving, perhaps envious glances at my audacious, public lounging. I’m on the alert for a showdown; my feet are not malodorous, I showered three hours ago. Shall we do the scratch and sniff test?
Lydia and I had planned to while away the seven-hour journey in companionable Russian language study together, inaugurating the spanking new, serious grammar textbook I bought her yesterday at Dom Knigi, House of Books, on my way to the “elite” hairdresser on Kazanskaya St., not far from its eponymous cathedral. My plan for tomorrow in Moscow consisted of a queens-for-a-day visit to Charadeika, The Sorceress Salon for manicures and pedicures, events far beyond the pale of our customary spartan routine. Duly gussied up, we were to buy yellow roses and try to get them undamaged back to Mytishi, the Moscow suburb where Armen rents a 5th floor walkup in a crumbling cement high rise, via the metro and electric commuter train, for our evening mother-daughter bonding session of weaving them into a wreath for my simply, but newly styled hair. Bound to be uproarious and memorable.
But it doesn’t pay to plan too precisely or sentimentally here, as well I should know, after more than a year of thrashing through the protracted, prickly bureaucratic brush that has ultimately dictated our modest, lonely ceremony to take place at the cheesy, gray, solemn ZAGS, State marriage registry, on noisy, dusty Butyrskaya St., of infamous prison renown, in sprawling, mercantile Moscow, instead of the graceful, Baroque wedding palace on a tree-lined avenue in Petersburg, followed by a boat-party on the canals and rivers. My chin had hit the floor when Armen had escorted me to this Monument to Our Bright Future, a Stalinist relic if ever there was one, to reserve our time slot. We had both had to appear together, documents in hand, for this solemn scheduling occasion. Take it or leave it, you foreigner.
Outside, the small gravel parking lot looks as though it should belong to a roadside bar. Next door is a shocking pink TATTOO TATTOO TATTOO salon, its façade decorated in life-sized letters, which is, in turn, across the street from a squat, lime green structure promising AUTOPARTS, one word calligraphed like a week-old bruise, in flowing black, blue and turmeric. Inside, the hallowed Soviet temple is reminiscent of nothing so much as a crematorium.
Hush! No raised voices or jollification allowed. Armen is oblivious to the atmosphere. It’s completing the act that counts for him, finally getting it out of the way without further hitches. Who cares about romantic touches? We are both old, I in my late forties and he in his early fifties, and this isn’t a first marriage for either of us; thus, he parries my disappointment. And anyway, he defends himself, he wasn’t given alternatives from which to choose.
I sigh, defeated from the outset of our bright future.
If I have been a previous passenger on this day train, it’s too many years ago to recall. The lowering, lead-lined clouds seem to hang stationary in landscape immutability over timeless wooden dachas surrounded by the sudden brilliant green of early May.
Birches, firs, poplars, pines, maples newly adorned with Dostoevsky’s tender, sticky leaves and needles conspire to lure us out of hibernation and make us believe. Softly curving rivers and creamy lakes reflect the slowly diluting Northern light as the sky reluctantly lulls us toward the finality of evening.
An occasional kerchiefed, ageless dachnitsa bends and plants. An intermittent open meadow flashes by, dusted with puffy dandelion blossoms, defied by the odd tree.
No one speaks in our compartment. My unaccustomed voice, hesitantly requesting the loan of my neighbor’s pen during his accessibility between naps, is the first jarring interruption of the flickering montage of landscapes screened by our moist window. The smartly dressed young woman seated by it is curled up, reading James Hadley’s Chase in Russian translation. She is eating a banana, self-consciously, decorously. My near contemporary opposite her is scouring a newspaper, having finished her banana, the browning peel of which wilts on the small table next to the fatherland version soda pop she has had the foresight to bring. The dignified, salt and pepper haired Akunin reader kitty-corner from me is dozing, her open novel protectively shielding the shiny, giant purple and silver butterfly pinned to her chest like proud, garish armor.
Although there is no naively anticipated restaurant car on today’s train, if only for diversion, nor even a buffet corner, there is the pleasant, attractive youth with his snack basket, and that’s not exactly nothing. Indeed, it is millennium, 21st century, post-Soviet commerce. Recently, when I’ve had occasion to meet this train on personal missions to retrieve packets or entrust the conductor, always in the coveted first carriage — a little private enterprise — with mysterious envelopes containing documents affirming Armen’s and my right to exist and pursue our lives, our red tape shunted back and forth between Petersburg and Moscow in a local version of overnight mail, I have eyed its dining car with a night traveler’s envy, and imagined how civilized it would seem, sometime, to board this train in the afternoon, read for a few hours, and then mosey on down to the anachronistic restaurant car with its ruffle-trimmed windows and matching artificial flowers, for a change of scene.
State train china, carafes, linen tablecloths and napkins… released, unforced train lover’s nostalgic élan instead of urgent, cramped, bunk spreading, hasty, furtive undressing, and futile attempts to lure forty winks into a stuffy, snore-shaken, four-bunk, metal box.
But what’s this? A ten-minute stop, after all, according to my pen-bereft cabin mate. Interesting that not one of my taciturn fellow travelers volunteered this information earlier, when I asked if there were to be any stops. And typical of the conductor: Promise nothing; then the people will exercise stoicism and, most importantly, gratitude for any forthcoming respite. And so I do. Two village aunties have met our train, carrying plastic bag-lined bottle crates, of dubious sanitation, laden with steaming piroshki. They do a brisk business, as do the two beer and cigarette kiosks, trading for ordinary prices yet. I’m a bit hungry, but demoralized by my recent forays into clothing shops offering items made by Chinese and Italian manufacturers, who have not in their wildest dreams predicted a customer of my height, weight, or shoe size. I pass the beckoning, greasy, hot buns, stamped in my mind’s eye with XXXXXXL.
However, my will-power is vanquished at the last moment by visions of the dry, hungry three hours ahead. My siege mentality. Something to do with my poor, albeit over-sated Catholic childhood, according to Lydia at her less than charitable. And they have Afanasy Dobroye, which is, regrettably, not Afanasy Dark beer, and is warm, but inviting enough under the circumstances. I buy two standard half-liter bottles and a package of pistachio nuts to tide me over, not daring or caring to confront the calorie information.
Enlivened by food and drink, my reticent cabin mates have become positively garrulous. It seems we’re in for a May cold snap beginning tonight. Naturally. I’ve forgotten to bring a sweater, attempting to travel light, for a change, and my only shoes are flimsy, formal sandals. Weather, weather, and more weather, the ice-breaking barge of strangers haphazardly thrown together, the world over. Then, a passing, though equable, aside concerning another passenger, who’s been detained on the platform, ostensibly for document inspection by the police. A Southerner. He glances at us forlornly from the platform as the train inches away. A brief, but not uncomfortable pause in our insular conversation. These things happen; no need to “make a drama out of them.” We, at least, are cozily on our way.
Then, it’s which vegetables have just “appeared” at which metro stations in our fair capital, followed by the punctuality of trains past and present. My neighbor suddenly reveals a satchel of salted salmon and sausage sandwiches. He offers me one; I politely decline. The Akunin reader polishes off her third homemade rolled pancake in content isolation. The delicate young woman in the window seat pretends, prettily, to sleep. A few straggling comments on the weather again, to bring us full circle, and then it’s back to our books and window-gazing. I try to warm my now icy feet by tucking them under my bag, an unsatisfactory solution, but one that provides an excuse for its presence on the seat instead of on the overhead rack, where I couldn’t have lifted it in any case.
So, after all, after all the frustrating, absurd, expensive, and senseless chasing after and waiting for documents with their official, hand-sewn and stamped translations—documents of divorce with a shiny, golden, $500 Apostile stamp, of domicile and visa registration, of buying, selling, moving, arriving, leaving, intention, fact, fiction—it all comes together, and fails to do so simultaneously.
I have had to make a whirlwind trip to Finland for a new visa to be registered in Moscow, which cannot be registered in St. Petersburg, where I reside and wish to be married. Armen and I finally set the date, or rather, it is set for us in Moscow by the surreal ZAGS for foreigners, where he’s been sent in the course of his exhaustive and exhausting inquiries. Suddenly, Lydia has had to take a night bus to Helsinki in order to get her new visa stamped so she can then travel to Moscow. The wedding date has been moved forward two days, not without difficulty, in order to accommodate this unexpected glitch, so that she might be present at the ill-fated event, albeit under protest and wearing a burgundy full-length silk slip with a man’s XL silk shirt draped over it.
Mother, choose your battles. Prospective guests have begged off as a result of the uncertain date, place, and resulting inability to plan travel. And, as the balloon sinks, we’ve cast overboard the ballast of my long, exuberantly planned celebration, as well as the dress I designed myself. The entire enterprise has taken on a “let’s just get it over with” taint. Not an auspicious beginning for a Bright Future.
Train tickets are bought. A bus ticket is bought. I see Lydia off, blowing mock kisses, waving hankies, laughing, as she boards a bus full of contraband and petty smugglers in front of the October Hotel. She returns at 11:30 the following night in a weary snit to match the despondent worry I worked up while apartment cleaning and packing. We argue. I cry. She shouts and refuses to pack “any sooner than she has to.” I shout back, accusing her of deliberately trying to miss my wedding, so as to sabotage my happiness at this star-crossed event, of which she openly disapproves.
The following day, the frenzy and sniping have grown even worse. “Make sure you have your passport and visa,” I can’t keep myself from reminding her. She explodes, “You don’t need to keep repeating that. Of course I have my passport and visa! How many times do I have to tell you that I’ve never forgotten my passport and visa in my life?” Crimson, virulent silence. And then the reluctant, shame-faced inevitable… “I can’t find my passport and visa. Have you seen them?” Sullen and embarrassed, she refuses to meet my eye. So, lost, purloined, sold, bartered? The last time she remembers seeing them is on the bus from Finland after the final passport control. More shouting, more tears, many frantic phone calls.
And that’s that. My only child, my only cultural ally in this belated pioneering endeavor will not be validating the ritual with me. No silly, girlish rites of passage, no secretive giggling, no private jokes, no clinking of champagne glasses. Not without the required documents, comrade. She puts me on the train. We hug and kiss and sob and make gestures of regret and forgiveness.
I wonder for the 87th time if this is folly. I close my eyes for privacy, like a small child, knowing I won’t find the relief of sleep, and let the familiar reel of bad omens replay. There was the day I’d been rejected by the officious marriage bureaucrat on Furshtatskaya St. and told we’d have to go to Moscow, where Armen’s domicile was registered.
The same day, on my way out, I’d helped a young man who knew no Russian find the office he needed so he could begin arranging his marriage to a woman he had effectively chosen from a catalog, and met only once the previous day. As I’d led him over planks spiked with rusty nails, across muddy tire tracks, and through a maze of garbage-strewn, decrepit courtyards, slowly, meticulously grazing a path with my cane, and trying to keep my always precarious balance, we’d made polite small talk. He had offered the unsolicited assessment that I must be very brave to marry a Russian man.
“As opposed to a Russian woman?” I’d countered. “I think you know the difference as well as I do,” he had responded in smug, supercilious fashion. “It’s even worse than you imagine,” I smiled, pointing to the bent, metal doorway a few steps below ground level. “He’s Armenian, not Russian,” I tossed over my shoulder, abruptly walking away. It had occurred to me to wish him luck with his mail-order bride in parting, but I swallowed the words, thinking better of it, and myself.
Not a block down the street, a gypsy woman had materialized like mist from an archway to stop and scrutinize me, announcing that I had great misfortune coming my way, in the form of a man, which would make me even more ill than I obviously already was. She pointed to my cane by way of illustration. When I shook my head decisively, pulling away and giving her a wide berth as she clutched at my arm, refusing to follow her into the dark courtyard at her back, to cross her palm with paper notes, she shrugged her shoulders derisively, muttering that it was my funeral. Not exactly a hard beat to cover or a difficult prediction to make, given that I had just emerged from ZAGS on the
Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Later, when I recounted these incidents, I assured Armen that I was not superstitious, just sharing humorous anecdotes. But he hadn’t laughed. That’s when I began seriously to wonder about our suitability for one another. He had simply raised his head, met my eyes earnestly, and told me I had nothing to lose. But did I have anything to gain, would be Lydia’s rejoinder a few days thereafter. I hadn’t even told her about the incident with the gypsy. She already had enough ammunition.
I open my eyes to change the reel. I try flexing and wiggling my cramped feet. My erstwhile companions and I are now staring blankly at the first few drops of rain lashing the window, each cocooned in separate thoughts. A large, steel gray lake edges away the narrow, violet streak that highlights its border with the sky. Akunin slides to the floor, while his reader and the man opposite her nearly crack heads, reflexively bending to retrieve it. “It tried to run away,” the man smiles faintly as he returns her book. “To run away…” the woman smiles faintly and nods.
“Pivo, vodka, dzhin, sprait, fistashki…”
Diane G. Martin has published poetry, prose, and photographs in numerous literary magazines. Her photos have been exhibited in the USA, Italy, and Russia. She has participated in radio programs in the US and Russia, and broadcast essays on Maine Public Radio.
Traveling widely, her main themes are reluctant migration, disability, and displacement.